In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.”
– Isaiah 6:1-8
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
– John 3:1-17
Today’s sermon is Born From Above, a phrase taken from the gospel reading for today. We’ll spend some time with Nicodemus in a moment, but I’d like to start out with our reading from Isaiah, because the two passages are related. Both passages speak to a number of the same themes, and there are four of those themes I’d like to focus on today: (1) the majesty of God; (2) the effect on a nation when its leaders have lost sight of God; (3) God’s merciful provision for times like this; and (4) and what it means to be ‘born from above’.
So starting with Isaiah. Isaiah is in the temple one day and he sees a vision of God. What Isaiah sees is not a literal reality – scripture tells us God is a spirit, not a physical being – but a vision is a spiritual reality conveying truth about the kingdom of God. Isaiah sees God as a great king, high and powerful, seated on a great throne, so majestic that just the hems of God’s robe are enough to fill the sanctuary. And Isaiah hears seraphim calling out to each other, “holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts.”
The word ‘holy’ is one of those words we hear a lot in church but might have trouble defining. The website Pathos gives some helpful clarity:
The Hebrew word for holy… means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness”… “otherness, transcendent and totally other” – all of these things – because God is totally above… creation… . Holy [also] has the idea of heaviness or weight of glory….”
The website goes on to say:
“In Jewish liturgy, when something is incredibly important, it is mentioned twice. Jesus does this when He says something twice like “truly, truly [I say to you]”… but when something is mentioned three times in a row, it is off the charts in importance….”
A God who is ‘holy, holy, holy’ is so far beyond and above us that it is impossible for us to even put it into words. As Isaiah stands in the temple and sees this vision he catches just a glimpse of the greatness and otherness of God, and he is undone.
Imagine if something like that were to happen this morning – if God were to show us just a glimpse of God’s majesty and glory. We would not be singing hymns and I would not be preaching a sermon. We would be in exactly the same place Isaiah was: crying out, “I am undone! For I am a person of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
In Isaiah’s vision, God immediately takes action. One of the seraphim cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar (this is still part of the vision; we’re not talking about physical burning). And the sacrifice of the altar – which is the forerunner of the sacrifice of Jesus – takes care of both literal and spiritual uncleanness.
And then God asks, “who will go for us?” and then Isaiah is able to answer, “I will! Send me.”
Stepping back for a moment for context, in the context of both passages, God is dealing with a group of people – a nation – who have rebelled against God’s laws. And in both passages God – or Jesus, in the gospel reading – asks the leadership some very pointed questions. In Isaiah, just before the events in this morning’s reading, God gives these words to Isaiah the prophet:
“O my people, your leaders mislead you, and confuse the course of your paths. […] The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts.” – Isaiah 3:12-15, edited
Ancient Israel suffered under a ruling class that ignored the the poor and indulged themselves on the fat of the land while the little people struggled to stay alive. The gap between rich and poor was wide and getting wider. (Things haven’t changed much in 3000 years!) And God puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the leaders, the ruling class, who have the power to do something about it but don’t.
Of course in the days of Isaiah and Jesus, national leaders would have been both political and religious –in those days the two overlapped. So Isaiah’s words are not a political statement; God is not writing a manifesto. In God’s eyes the treatment of the poor is a spiritual issue, not a political one. If the hearts of the nation are right toward God, the poor and the powerless will be provided for. They will be treated with mercy and generosity because this is what God commands. Throughout scripture one of the marks of true faith – and one of the first things people did when they converted to the faith – was to give generously and joyfully to the poor. Remember Zacchaeus the tax collector? When Jesus called him to be a disciple, Zacchaeus immediately said:
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:8-9)
When a person is born from above, this is the kind of heart – and the kind of leadership – the Spirit of God inspires.
In Isaiah’s case, when Isaiah is born from above, he becomes a leader after God’s own heart. The people now have a leader who loves God above all else, and it will make a difference in the life of their nation. Isaiah’s efforts will not be enough to turn the hearts of all of Israel’s leaders; the nation will end up going into exile in Babylon; but Isaiah will care for God’s people during the exile and he will predict their return to Jerusalem, which comes true in the lifetime of the prophet Daniel.
And so now we turn our attention to the reading from John. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler among the religious leaders. Jesus had a lot to say about the Pharisees in the New Testament, and very little of it was good! He called them things like “a brood of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones”.
Historical side note: During Jesus’ time there were two main camps among the religious leaders: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. I point this out because, while the specifics change from generation to generation, I think church history has been marked by a similar division among religious leaders for the past 2000 years. See if you can recognize some parallels. The Sadducees were religious leaders whose faith had become compromised with the surrounding culture; they were more Greek than Jewish, more like aristocrats than the faithful. They took advantage of their positions to have the best of everything, but they were no longer dependable as religious teachers. Jesus had very little to say to them; they confronted him now and then, but not as often as the Pharisees, and he never sought them out.
The Pharisees on the other hand were a popular group, well-liked by the people and (with a few glaring flaws) generally interpreted scripture correctly. The problem was they were hypocrites: they taught one thing and lived another. They didn’t practice what they preached. Jesus told his followers: “do what they tell you but don’t do what they do.”
So Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to see Jesus. But there’s something different about this particular Pharisee. He comes to see Jesus, alone, at night – presumably to avoid being seen by his fellow Pharisees, who said anyone believing in Jesus would be thrown out of the synagogue. And Nicodemus reveals a truth that no other Pharisee has confessed: he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.”
We know. After all the arguments and public confrontations and opposition, the truth comes out: we know. The Pharisees oppose Jesus knowing full well who he is. They’re not acting in ignorance. They don’t want to change their ways. They don’t want to give back to God what belongs to God – namely the people of God and the gifts the people bring.
Why would Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisees, take the risk of coming to Jesus and saying this?
I can think of only one reason: Nicodemus is starting to believe: not in the sense of intellectually agreeing with Jesus, but in the sense that he’s beginning to realize that Jesus is ‘holy, holy, holy’. He’s catching a glimpse of the glory of God, like Isaiah did, and he feels undone. He knows his life is about to change, and he’s beginning to love Jesus too much to want it any other way. His loyalties have shifted and he doesn’t know what to do. So he comes to Jesus to ask for help.
And Jesus replies with the help Nicodemus needs: he says, “Truly, truly I say to you, if a person is not born from above (or born again) that person is not able to see the kingdom of God.”
This is probably one of the most mis-quoted and mis-understood verses of our generation, so let me bring it back to the original Greek and translate so we can get the real meaning. Jesus says, “Amen, amen” – well OK, that’s actually Hebrew – it means ‘I agree’ or ‘I affirm’ or (as they said back in the 90s) ‘word’.
Jesus says, “if a person is not born again or born from above” – and there is a deliberate double-meaning here. The phrase can and does mean ‘born from above’, ‘born from the beginning’, or ‘born anew’. And if this does not happen a person cannot see the kingdom of heaven.
I think the mistake in interpretation has been in putting the emphasis on the first phrase, ‘born again’ – instead of on the second phrase – ‘seeing the kingdom of heaven’. The second phrase does not mean ‘go to heaven’ (Jesus is not saying ‘you must be born again if you want to go to heaven’) – it means to perceive the kingdom. It’s kind of like Jesus is saying, ‘you need to put your spiritual glasses on if you want to see the kingdom’. The Greek word for ‘see’ could also be translated ‘experience’, ‘perceive’, or ‘witness’.
The verb is present tense and it is active. There’s a kingdom to perceive right now. The eternal kingdom of God does not begin when we die. It started before we were born and it extends into eternity. The kingdom of God is ‘not of this world’ but it exists (at least in part) in our time and place. The science fiction concept of a ‘parallel universe’ is not exactly accurate but it’s helpful here. There’s a reality, here and now, that can only be perceived spiritually and cannot be grasped by the natural human mind alone.
Nicodemus misses the point entirely and starts talking about crawling back inside a mother’s womb to be born again.
So Jesus explains further. He says a person must be born of both water and spirit; that what is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. The Greek word for ‘flesh’ is sarkos, it’s the word we get sarcophagus from, and while it doesn’t mean corpse, it does imply mortality, that is, flesh that doesn’t last forever. The Greek word for spirit is pneumatos, the word we get pneumatic from, it has to do with air or wind. Which is why Jesus then follows his comments by saying “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or where it goes; and so it is with all who are born of the Spirit.”
The life of a believer doesn’t make any sense to people without the Spirit. We appear to them to be tossed around by the wind – and in a sense we are! But those of us who have been born of the Spirit perceive a different reality and respond to a different voice.
Nicodemus is at a loss. Jesus chides him: “how can you be a spiritual teacher of Israel and not know this?” It’s like, ‘this is Spirituality 101’.
And Jesus goes on to explain God’s plan of salvation. He says, “I have come from heaven and I’m telling you what I’ve personally seen.” (Side note: the ‘you’ in verses 11 & 12 – ‘You did not receive our testimony’ – is plural; Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus about what the Pharisees teach, and is inviting Nicodemus to see things differently.) Jesus ties his mission in with the mission of Moses, who saved Israel from sickness and death by lifting up a snake on a stick – “so also must the son of man be lifted up” on a cross for all the world to see. Jesus has not come to judge, but so that the world can be saved through him.
Nicodemus’ story has a happy ending. He must have gone home and really thought and prayed about what Jesus said, because we see him two more times in scripture: once, defending Jesus’ rights to a proper trial, and a second time, helping with Jesus’ burial. There are no records of Nicodemus after Jesus’ death, but historically the church has considered him both a disciple and a saint.
This comforts me too, by the way, because it means even a Pharisee can make it into the kingdom. Because as a preacher it is easy to fall into the trap of being like a Pharisee, of saying one thing and living another. I preach about a perfect God, but I’m not a perfect person. The fact that religious leaders could deny the Messiah, the very one they were supposed to be serving, is a warning to all of us who share the gospel. But the fact that Nicodemus made it – that he was able to be born of the Spirit and perceive God’s kingdom – means we can too. We have hope.
OK so to sum up: we were looking at four things: the first was the greatness of God. In both stories, Isaiah and Nicodemus catch a small glimpse of God’s glory and God’s holiness. The second thing is both Isaiah and Nicodemus lived in a time when the leaders of the people were rebelling against God. The third thing is, God in mercy provides what is needed: the cleansing Isaiah needs, and the teaching Nicodemus needs; and now both are able to go out and speak God’s truth and teach the people about salvation by God’s grace. And fourth, both Isaiah and Nicodemus become born of the Spirit, able to perceive the kingdom of God, able to act as spiritual guides.
At this point in the sermon many preachers would give an altar call, but I don’t think that really follows on what we’ve just seen in these passages! Rather I would like us to follow the lead of Nicodemus: if we feel that Jesus is true, if we believe Jesus is holy and sent by God, if we love what Jesus has to say, if we’re amazed by what he does, if we know that only God could do the things Jesus does, then like Nicodemus we need to come to Jesus alone and speak to him what’s on our hearts. Jesus will take it from there.
Let’s pray together. Lord Jesus, thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for loving us and providing for us. As we take a moment of silence now, hear the thoughts of our hearts, and touch our spirits with your own. [In the silence add your own prayers.] We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.
Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Trintiy Sunday, 5/31/15